Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 205 - 219)




  205. May I welcome the Hansard Society to the Committee this morning. Thank you very much indeed for having conducted for us, and for our inquiry, your on-line discussion on electronic democracy. I know that you have come to tell us about the results of this and talk about some of the general issues associated with it. I think with that, I am going to hand over to you and ask you to take us through it.
  (Dr Coleman) Thank you very much. In this presentation we shall attempt to do three things. First of all, to outline the purpose and methods of the Hansard Society's Electronic Democracy programme. Secondly, to provide a brief account of evidence collected during the online discussion which took place between 24 November and 28 December 1999 for the purpose of gathering evidence for the Public Administration Committee's inquiry into Innovations in Citizens Participation in Government. Thirdly, to offer a brief review of ways in which new information and communication technologies—which are referred to as ICTs—are being used to invigorate the democratic process. The first part, which is the Hansard Society's programme of research and experimentation. ( The theme of Electronic Democracy is not an obvious one for the Hansard Society to have taken up. Indeed, the term "electronic democracy" is not one that makes a lot of sense to us, although we use the term because it is widely used. We do not accept what is essentially a technologically deterministic concept of that kind. Our main interest is in promoting effective parliamentary democracy and that is far from being simply a technological issue. So e-democracy is not something we have taken up because we believe in technocratic quick fixes. We are interested in this for three reasons. First of all, we are aware that there is a prevalent sense on the part of the public that Parliament is in some way remote from them, that it is not necessarily very interested in what they have to say. This was one of the main findings from our research last year into public perceptions of Parliament after ten years of cameras in the House of Commons. Secondly, the new communication environment is characterised by the interactive nature of ICTs. This capacity to link citizens to their representatives, irrespective of distance or space, offers a possible opportunity of strengthening the connections that constitute democratic representation. Thirdly, it is undoubtedly the case that efficient parliamentary business relies upon the expertise and experience of people beyond Parliament. The evidence traditionally taken by Select Committees is a good example of this. It is sometimes said that Parliament and Government rely too much upon "the usual suspects", the great and the good, whose knowledge is already respected. Beyond this group there are undoubtedly others whose voices could and should usefully be heard. In 1997 the Cabinet Office endorsed a public consultation, conducted via the Internet by an organisation UK Citizens Online Democracy, on the Freedom of Information White Paper that it released in December 1997. UK Citizens Online Democracy was the world's first national body established to encourage public deliberation via the internet. The consultation was judged to have been a great success and the Government has since run several more of these. Indeed, the Prime Minster at the time said that he looked forward to these consultations becoming a regular part of the legislative process. UK Citizens Online Democracy based its activities on an earlier exercise, the Minnesota e-politics project which began life in 1995, rather ancient history as far as the internet is concerned, and became probably the leading organisation in the world for encouraging citizens' participation through the new media. At the same time as the UK Citizens Online Democracy experiment, the BBC was setting up its own online network. Within two years BBC Online became the largest web site in Europe, with millions of people accessing it each month. It is now regarded as the BBC's third service after radio and television. In short, many of the first and most successful online initiatives have occurred in the UK and have occurred over the last two and a half years. Now in relation to e-democracy, e-democracy is something of a junior partner alongside e-commerce and e-government. E-commerce, the transaction of sales over the internet and e-government, the delivery of state services and information through the internet. In 1998 the Hansard Society collaborated with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to run a pilot online conference to discuss the Data Protection Bill. This brought together a number of lawyers, IT specialists, people involved in privacy not just in this country but in other countries and was a successful gathering together of views on the subject. It was an interesting use of an online discussion linking citizens to the Parliamentary process. It was decided that more of these would be run. In October last year, the Hansard Society ran an online discussion, together with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology which was open to women scientists and engineers; in fact it was open to all scientists and engineers but it was about women in science and engineering. They were invited to discuss themes related to a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Women in Science. The results of that have now been given as evidence to that committee. Last November the e-democracy online discussion began. In March of this year we shall be running an online consultation with women survivors of domestic violence who will be interacting with the All-Party Domestic Violence Group and, for the first time ever, able to give evidence through the internet to that body. There, of course, is quite an important infrastructure connected with that particular exercise because it means getting computers into refuges and training for people who are going to have access. You cannot simply provide access as a rhetorical proposition, you have to do it in reality. Also forthcoming are online discussions on the Leasehold Reform Bill and the new legislation on the funding of referendums. We propose to link in to future select committee inquiries and other committees. We have plans to run our first pilot consultation via digital television later in the year. We have had a provisional agreement from On-digital to enable us to do that. In running these discussions we have asked ourselves the following three questions: Firstly, can the new media involve more people—and diverse sections of the population—in the democratic process? Secondly, can the participation of citizens in these discussions contribute to more informed legislation and Parliamentary scrutiny? Thirdly, do these opportunities for public involvement via the internet pave the way for more innovative and democratic uses of the media once analogue television is switched off, as it relatively soon will be, and digital television, with its inherent interactivity, becomes almost universal? I now want to turn to the recent online discussion on electronic democracy. The 75 participants in this discussion were far from being typical. They came from the IT industry, the media, academia and the community networks already used to using the internet—in short, they were amongst the most wired people in the United Kingdom and they were used to engaging in online communication. Not everyone is so familiar with the process, so I would like to turn to my colleague, Dr Peter Bratt, who is the technical consultant to the Hansard Society, and ask him to say a few words about how this online discussion actually took place.
  (Dr Bratt) You may or may not be pleased to know I am not going to look at the technology in detail. I think the technology is often a hindrance to the understanding of what we can all do with the technology. In this case I am going to explain how we put together the Democracy Forum and what we were trying to achieve. Essentially we had 75 participants who were all in different places and who all have different availabilities as far as their time is concerned. What we wanted to do was to enable them not just to give evidence, but to join in a discussion between each other, to make statements and refine and develop those matters through collaboration and discussion and to do so from their workplace or their home at whatever time suited them. That, of course, is the classic discussion group concept. I am going to attempt to now demonstrate this discussion group. Because we could not organise a telephone line into here this morning I have a cut down version of this on my machine. Essentially the part of the Democracy Forum I am going to show you deals with the export panel, the 75 people who were talking to each other. If I select we get into the front page of the main discussion group. On the left-hand side is a listing. If I click on this[1], I now display a list of all of the topics people have been talking about. These are all of the headline topics. People are dealing with lessons for the Public Administration Committee, digital television, BBC Online, best practice from other countries, and so on. Next to them the plus indicates that there have been various other additions made to these contributions. I have clicked on the one called "online deliberative democracy". That first contribution has then had several sub-contributions made to it. Of course I can read any of these. If I click on the third one down on the right-hand side, it is displayed and so is the contribution that particular person has made. It gives me the title, the topic, who it is from, Irving Rappaport, and indeed when and where he made it. He made that at 1.40 pm on Sunday. We have contributions from all hours of the day and night. It is interesting to see what people are doing at these times.

  206. Where did these 75 people come from?
  (Dr Bratt) These people were selected by Dr Coleman in this particular case and invited to join this discussion group because they have particular expertise in this area. In general this could be anybody. With this technology we could invite anybody. Any member of the general public could come along and apply to be part of this discussion group. In this case it was a selected discussion group and for your information it was carried on behind user name password security because it was a closed group.
  (Dr Coleman) It was largely self-selected. We announced that we were going to run this, through various electronic journals which would appeal to the kind of people we wanted, and almost anybody who wanted to take part did take part.
  (Dr Bratt) Basically they take part by making contributions like this. They would type in and enter it and it would appear and be read. If somebody has read this particular contribution, you will see at the top there is a button called "reply" and if I click on it then there is an input box there where any other user of this discussion group could type in their reply, which would then appear on the left-hand side if this was actually running on the website. All this occurs immediately, so as soon as somebody has finished typing and hits the button called "host" then their contribution goes in or their comment goes straight in and can be read immediately by anybody else. There is a button on the top called "post" which puts up a similar dialogue box but allows the user to start a new topic, a new thread as it is known in the jargon. People can start new ideas or comment on other ideas. The discussion progresses by people putting up an idea and it is subject to discussion/comment from all of the other users in the group and so it can develop. Some of these, if I can find one very quickly, can get quite long. Opening government to citizens, you can see has a big long list of 14 or 15 comments below it, obviously a thread or a theme was pursued and developed by the various people involved. They all, of course, make their comments, which can be read on the right-hand side.

  207. Is there a convention, as in conversation, of not dominating?
  (Dr Bratt) Very much so. We did produce a set of rules. To be honest, this group pretty much knew the rules. Yes, there is a convention which you can set out in the rules, although people who are familiar with it, know it. Yes, you should not dominate, you should not make your things too long. You should not make too many points in one submission and so on and you should not be replying and answering all the time every day, over and over again. What happens is the web master, as it is called, I have draconian powers, I can delete people and edit people and so on. Wonderful powers: complete and absolute, including chucking them off altogether. Stephen acts in a role which will be more relevant to your question, he acts as moderator which is a light guiding touch so we can tell people on the discussion or in private behind the scenes: "Your behaviour is not really the done thing in these circumstances. Please modify it". That usually works.

Mr White

  208. That is only in closed discussion groups, what do you do in the open discussion groups if somebody tries to stop them?
  (Dr Coleman) You can pre-moderate those as well.

  209. But you are trying to open up a discussion, that would close down a discussion.
  (Dr Bratt) It does. We have to let it run to a certain extent and pick out the worst offenders. The draconian power, which I laugh about but is our big stick in these cases, we can delete people's contribution. We can just wipe them out. That is the ultimate thing. If you are seen to be abusing we will either stop you making any more or wipe you out altogether. I know it is draconian. Most people respond to a gentle reminder.

  210. What is to stop you fixing the discussion, fixing an agreement?
  (Dr Bratt) In theory nothing at all, you have to trust the reputation of Stephen and the Hansard Society. If you are asking me as the web master, in theory of course I could interfere with it. It depends on reputation, reputation is everything, that is why a positive discussion like this could happen under the auspices of the Hansard Society, which is a trusted name, trust is the magic word in all this. Were something struck up under another name then that would be a danger.
  (Dr Coleman) In the early days of radio and television phone-in programmes you had exactly the same questions asked. What is to stop a radio station from choosing its own callers? The answer is that you have to regulate within those organisations and if they continue to do it, clearly it is going to discredit the whole process.
  (Dr Bratt) Just to say also, not that it is relevant to this particular one, in the larger discussion groups, we do keep statistics on users and how often they are used and everything else. When you have a discussion group with thousands of users, the statistical pattern can be quite revealing as well and that allows us to do a fairly subtle job of moderating. Basically, that is how a discussion group works with people contributing original ideas, coming up with other ideas, it progresses like that. Just to show you quickly, and it will be very quickly, there are facilities like search facilities so once this discussion is progressing, even for the relatively short time this one is around, it is difficult to keep track of what is happening so the user has an electronic search for key words so they can find out whatever is happening. This will not work because I am not online at the moment but I can type in a key word and it lists all the contributions made under that key word. Indeed, one of the things just to mention is that there are a whole set of extra things under the wonderfully called "more" button. In particular I would just mention to you, the access to mailing list. just to explain, this sits on our web server and is accessed by dialling into the web site and anybody who has the password can read all of this, it is updated immediately. It is possible also to take part in the discussion through e-mail, the same software runs an e-mail system. So if people prefer to compose offline, as it is known in the jargon, and then send an e-mail, that e-mail appears on this discussion group. Indeed people can read the discussion group by e-mail. It depends whether people are more comfortable with the use of a web site or with e-mail, both are possible under this system, and people did contribute in both ways. So the point about this technology is it enables a disparate group of people working at different times of the day and night to not only say things but discuss things with each other. Roughly speaking that is how we use the web and internet technology in this particular circumstance.
  (Dr Coleman) If I can just make some observations about how the process worked in terms of participation. As we said, 75 people participated, 55 men and 20 women. 52 per cent of the participants contributed to the discussion during the four week period and 313 messages were posted altogether. We coded the contributions or messages in a number of ways, we coded them in about 80 different ways but two that might be of interest here, we coded for how many people made policy proposals and only 22 per cent of those coming to the site made a proposal in terms of policy. Most of them were much more interested in discussing their experiences, than in trying to help others to formulate policies. That was quite important to us because we wanted to find out just how much this will be a question of speech making and fully formed opinions. Most of the opinions were not fully formed although they were very clearly stated. We found also that 46 per cent of messages were direct responses to previous messages. The discussion was characterised by real exchanges of views rather than mere speech making. The discussion can be compared with 75 experts gathered together in a room for a meeting. How many in that situation would have an opportunity to speak in the course of an average length meeting? How easily could they set their own agenda? To what extent would they listen to and learn from one another? In the online version of this event, more than half spoke; on average they contributed seven times each. Several participated at no extra expense from Australia, Canada, the USA, Sweden, Finland and France as well as either ends of the UK, and they had a month in which to do all this, listen, learn and put their point of view. You have copies of our report identifying key points of evidence contributed during the discussion. The discussion is also archived on the web site. In fact it will remain on the web site forever more - it is in the public domain. I will confine myself in this brief presentation to identifying some of the themes addressed by contributors to the discussion. Firstly, there was a very strong view that the way of electronic democracy developing will be through the electronic delivery of government services. There was a view that there would be an evolution from local authorities and indeed central government providing information, providing services to citizens via the web and via other digital media and then bringing people in to participate, to offer points of view and share experiences through the web so people will in a sense have a learning curve started by Government leading to broader participative democracy. There was a second view on the part of the people who took part in this that it was the legislative wing of government that was most important because that was the locus of elected representation. A number of people said that in a sense one had to distinguish between Government consultations, which were very often consultations about finished policies, and parliamentary or local authority consultations which might involve much more public deliberation and is where input might count for something. Thirdly, there was a view that there was a need to develop best practices for elected representatives using new information and communication technologies with a particular emphasis on avoiding overload. There was a great benefit in this discussion from some very useful contributions from Victor Pertin, who is an Australian MP who decided to join in the discussion, and from certain people in other countries, such as the Swedish telecommunications agency, who were looking very seriously at ways of trying to avoid overload. Indeed, somebody in charge of these matters at the Post Office said that they were particularly interested in looking at some of the technical solutions that might be needed there in terms of mail filtering and so on. Mail filtering techniques are now quite advanced. Next, the importance of locating e-democracy within the existing political culture and in a sense that point speaks for itself. I think there was a lot of recognition, very interesting recognition to my mind, on the part of a lot of the discussion participants that one should not talk about cyber space and the new technologies in excessively utopian futuristic terms, one has to locate whatever is going on in the world as it is. So, for example, Lee Jasper from Operation Black Vote said that there is no point in talking about greater participation occurring through the internet unless you actually place the infrastructure for access within the communities where people are actually doing things already. You have to go to community centres, schools and so on. Again a contributor from Help the Aged was interested in looking at ways of being able to connect up to doctors' surgeries and so on. Next there was a discussion about the limited access to ICTs and about the future universality of digital television. There was a very strong view that digital television was going to be the means of universal access coming about, that was seen as being the next step. There was particular consideration given to access in relation to specific groups: women, ethnic minorities, older users and young people. There was a consideration of examples of international best practices, of which we can give you some examples. There was a lot of talk about the need for discussion moderation and regulation, establishing means by which you can ensure that people understand how discussions should take place and agree common protocols and regulate in terms of being sure of the identity of people taking part in discussions. Finally, there was some discussion raised by Professor James Fishkin from Texas about deliberative polling online, about the idea of using the internet as a means of not just running online focus groups but charting the changes in the minds of groups of people as they are presented with new information. That is something that the Hansard Society is committed to doing as one of its next online discussions. Moving towards a conclusion, let me now demonstrate, if I may, some of the ways that ICTs are being used to enhance the democratic process. I want to refer to four of them: first of all, as a means of providing unmediated public information. Secondly, as channels for organising and conducting campaigns. Thirdly, as spaces in which citizens can participate. Fourthly, as portals—or gateways—to information, offering simple ways to find out information and guidance as to what information means. Public information: local authority web sites are now ubiquitous, although their qualities vary enormously. In the e-democracy discussion there were several excellent contributions made about local council sites. Indeed there was information given, and we were asked to pass this onto your Committee, about a survey that has been conducted involving all local authority sites. For some reason, I am afraid I cannot really tell you, Hampshire County Council is something people speak well of in these circles. In Brent, councillors are now able to move motions and amendments via e-mail. Brent Council in terms of its internal use of new technologies sees itself as being a leader in this area. In Walsall there has been a great deal of thinking about ways of involving local citizens via online methods and a committee has been established to look at electronic democracy methods. The United Kingdom Parliament web site offers a wealth of information, but its main use is by those who already know their way around the Parliamentary system. There are still significant problems of navigation for the new user. Although there is a great deal there, there is not necessarily a great deal there unless you would have known how to find it had you gone to the library. Some of the Government web sites are exceptionally good and user friendly. The DETR is a good example of best practice in this respect. These are sites in which a number of people have reported finding the sort of information that they need. In the United States information is much more available on the web than in the United Kingdom, as you would probably expect. This is the Freedom of Information home page. One of the things we looked at was the FBI home page—I think as a bit of a joke—where we decided to look up Anthony Blunt. We found that we could read everything we wanted to under the United States Freedom of Information whereas when we went to the United Kingdom page the only reference we found to it was to the Public Administration Committee. Perhaps that tells us something. In terms of online campaigning it is often argued that political participation, as such, is not in decline but traditional politics is in decline. The web offers some support for this thesis. There is, in fact, a proliferation of online campaigning, some of which is clearly innovative and quite successful in engaging people. The Amnesty International site, which is one of the campaign sites, has a huge number of visits from members of the public all over the world, running into tens of thousands every week. Then there is the McLibel site, which really operates almost entirely online, it is a campaign, to a very great extent, which has its existence and membership entirely in a virtual sense. There is Friends of the Earth which, again, is one of the successful ones which now has subscriptions to online campaigning and indeed online donations—which is a rather different area, one that there may be some regulation about. There is also One World Online, I suggest one of the best web sites you can find in terms of international news that you probably would not be able to read about in such depth anywhere else. On citizen participation, I mentioned earlier that Minnesota e-politics has been the most successful United States project of its kind. Its founder, Stephen Clift, took part in the e-democracy discussion and made some very useful contributions to our discussion. It is now the case that politicans in Minnesota devote as much energy to online campaigns as to traditional media campaigning. The election of the new governor to Minnesota may or may not testify to that being a good thing but nevertheless Governor Ventura seemed to have run much of his campaign for office via the internet. BBC Online has developed a number of fora for political debates which have been extremely successful. In truth, this does not compete with the thousands who participate in the fora discussing Eastenders and the Antiques Road Show; these are by far the most popular discussions BBC Online runs. There is now a forum for discussing the work of Parliament—which the Hansard Society is running in collaboration with the BBC. From next April there will be an expanded, high profile democracy section on the BBC Online site and this may provide a forum for the kind of national dialogue that e-democracy enthusiasts have hoped for. Many people have argued you need a trusted place where people are naturally going to go to in order for that to happen. At the moment the BBC Online site is regarded by most people as the most likely candidate for that role. In other countries there is a growth of successful dialogues between citizens and their representatives. We have here an example of one going on at the moment between members of the Dutch Government and Dutch citizens in which government ministers are coming online—not live, not in a chat, in technical terms—but for two or three days at a time to answer questions or to have questions answered for them which are put by members of the public. A very successful one was the campaign "Americans Discuss Social Security", something that, perhaps, became one of the most important examples in the mid-1990s in the United States of national discussion about the social security policy and most of which happened through these virtual town meetings. Canada has been one of those places that has been particularly successful in running e-government. They now have the electronic Commons and the Community Access Program, which is particularly interesting because it has actually set a number of access points that each area must have before the criteria of democratic participation can be met, which seems to be a very mature decision to have made.


  211. Could you explain to me what you have just said?
  (Dr Coleman) In a sense what they said is that any area wanting to participate can only participate if there are enough free access points, in libraries and community centres, that they can use. It is rather like what we are doing with the domestic violence consultation. We are not simply saying to women, "You can take part", we are saying, "You can take part and we have an obligation to enable you to take part".

  212. I thought you might have been saying that something can only count as a participation or a consultation exercise if certain tests have been met in terms of access.
  (Dr Coleman) Yes.

  213. You were not?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes. They seem to be saying that unless the degree of access in a particular area has reached a certain point, participation is not regarded as being legitimate for the purposes of the programme of consultation that they are running.

Mr White

  214. How do you define access?
  (Dr Coleman) In this case access to the internet.

  215. By individuals or by groups?
  (Dr Coleman) By the population of a particular community.

Mr Browne

  216. How do you define area, is it by geographical area?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes. Unfortunately this[2] is not live, of course, I wish I could click on and show you. They have actually got a map and they literally point it out. I think this is a real innovation in terms of community access because they have really tried to establish clear criteria as to what access means rather than simply saying "Here we are, everyone join in".

Mr White

  217. Presumably, community of interest, you are talking about a different subject, community interest groups, you would consider that as valid access rather than geographical area?
  (Dr Coleman) Yes. I think what we are trying to establish here is that any group wanting to join in any of these consultations or discussions needs to have the ability to do so on an equal basis, sorry not on an equal basis but on a fair basis, on a sufficient basis.


  218. Thank you very much.
  (Dr Coleman) Finally, to come to the question of portals, one of the downsides of the Information Society is information overload. Portals or gateways to information are a useful innovation and many believe that digital citizens of the future will do very little surfing around the web sites and will become accustomed to being guided to information via trusted portals. In the USA portals may well play a key role as people turn to the internet for information during the coming presidential elections. Even in the mid term elections last time more people were going to the internet on a number of occasions than were going to television at any time apart from the TV debate. There is an assumption that by the end of this year, the US presidential election may take that form to an even greater degree. This is Democracy Network which is quite a successful one. This is Project Vote Smart. There is also another one, which we are not showing you here, which is Web, White and Blue, which is funded by the Martle Foundation, all of which provide an enormous amount of very useful information as a guide to voters. In the UK, people wanting to participate in the life of their communities can use the BBC Online Web Wise portal which offers a guide to access points, community networks and efficient ways of using the technology. This is the nearest that we have in the UK to a directory of community networks and ways of using them. The Hansard Society has been working with Web Wise to create a portal to UK democracy, how to contact your councillor, MP, MEP, MSP and which one to contact on which matters. In conclusion then, it would be hard not to see some potential in the new media for the encouragement of public participation in the democratic process and the strengthening of that process as a result. For this to happen requires experimentation and careful evaluation, particularly at this stage before digital television turns many of these things into matters of universality. That has been the main purpose of the exercise on which I have just reported and the programme of which it is a part.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for that.

Mr White

  219. First of all, an apology because I was meant to take part in this. I was one of the ones who agreed to take part and then did not do it.
  (Dr Coleman) You were a lurker.

1   Web page not now available; see for archived discussion. Back

2   (Indicating computer screen). Back

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